Monday, September 28, 2015

Play It Hard

Play It Hard, by Gil Brewer
May, 1964  Monarch Books

Like Ennis Willie, Gil Brewer is another hardboiled pulp writer of the ‘50s and ‘60s whose name I’ve been seeing a lot during my recent kick. And also like Willie, Brewer’s a cult author whose books, despite their quality, never got the visibility they deserved when they were published and are now overpriced on the used books market. I was lucky to get this one for six bucks; many of Brewer’s novels have been reprinted in recent years, but unfortunately Play It Hard isn’t one of them.

Brewer’s publications for Fawcett Gold Medal are the most valued by his fans, but he also wrote for a few for the sleazier imprints of the day, like Monarch Books. I don’t think Monarch was a straight-up “sleaze” imprint (or at least what passed for sleaze in those days), but they were apparently a bit more risque than mainstream imprints like the Fawcett Books line. In other words, you’ll come across the word “breasts” a lot more often in a Monarch book. And Brewer, who appears to have been known for his sexy but evil female characters, is well up to the task.

Curiously though, Play It Hard has a publication date of May, 1964, and the cover proclaims it’s the “first publication anywhere,” yet the book is copyright 1960 by Brewer. So did it take four years to get published? Or did Brewer write it back in ’60, only for the manuscript to be rejected by Gold Medal or someone else? I’ve looked through Brewer’s catalog and Play It Hard doesn’t appear to be a retitled reprint of an earlier Gil Brewer novel, so I have no idea. But at any rate, all that matters is the quality of the book itself, and I have to say I enjoyed the hell out of it, despite its implausibility. 

At 142 pages of fairly small print, the novel, which is written in third-person, charges right along. Brewer has to write it this way, otherwise the reader will start asking too many questions. And as it is, it’s hard enough for the reader to not ask questions, for the central plot of Play It Hard is so bonkers you have to laugh: A guy wakes up one morning to discover that his wife of less than a week has been replaced by an auburn-haired sexpot, but no one believes him and the fake wife insists she is his wife! So this is more of a psychological noir story rather than your average hardboiled deal; either way it’s a lot of fun and Brewer’s writing is very enjoyable.

Our hero is Steve Nolan, a war vet, whether Korea or WWII is not stated, who lives in some (I think) unspecified town in Florida and makes his living as a mattress manufacturer. Apparently this is quite the way to meet the ladies, as we’re informed that Steve has gotten lucky again and again, as selling mattresses is a surefire way to get a lady in the sack. (I knew I shouldn’t have gone into Marketing!)  But Steve’s recently become a married man; meeting a hotstuff lady named Janice on the beach in nearby resort town Oceanside on a much-needed vacation, Steve fell in love with her and proposed. Janice accepted, and they’ve been married only a week. None of Steve’s friends or family have met her.

All this is relayed gradually in the text; when the novel begins, Steve is in a stupor, either from drinking too much or from being drugged. Honeymooning along the Gulf Coast, Steve and Janice hammered the drinks with a bushy-eyebrowed stranger the night before, and it all descended into a black void so far as Steve’s memory goes. He comes back to consciousness in his own home, which he shares with his aunt Eda, and discovers that the woman who claims to be his wife is not the Janice he married. But Eda doesn’t believe Steve, nor does longtime family doctor Earl Paige, who tells Steve he’s had a nervous breakdown and is just confused; of course Janice is the same woman he married a few days ago.

Here’s the big problem. Brewer does a superb job making this a psychological thing: did Steve really have a breakdown? Is it only in his mind, and is this the same Janice he married? Brewer skillfully plays out this absurd scenario so that you buy it. However, Monarch Books chose to blow the entire mystery by clearly stating on the back cover that the woman is not his real wife!! Talk about spoilers. At any rate the pseudo-Janice is a smokin’-hot babe with auburn hair and a killer bod which she enjoys showing off; she’s real game for Steve to get better so they can have some hot marital sex asap.

Another problem with Play It Hard, or at least what seemed like a problem to me, is that we never meet the real Janice. Hence we never truly empathize with Steve. As other characters tell him, “If my wife was replaced by a woman who looked like that, I wouldn’t be complaining,” and that’s how the reader soon feels, as the ample charms of pseudo-Janice are constantly played up to the point where you figure Steve should just close his eyes and think of England. I believe the reader would be more inclined to feel Steve’s pain if we’d been given a glimpse of the real Janice, rather than the story of how they met being doled out in backstory midway through the text.

This doesn’t really detract from the book, though. As I say, the entire concept is so goofy but so superbly written that you get swept up in it. Let alone that Steve never bothered to take a photo of the real Janice or to get much information about her; we’re to believe they quickly fell in love and decided to quickly marry, even foregoing the usual blood tests (something which I thought didn’t become standard until later). Now here’s Steve trying to convince everyone that this super-hot chick with the killer bod isn’t his real wife, even if she claims she is; about the only “test” he can think to put her through is to try on the real Janice’s clothes, including her lingerie. It all fits pseudo-Janice.

Steve isn’t the sharpest tool; Gil Brewer followed the preferred Gold Medal theme of making his protagonists average guys, but Steve really would only be considered “average” if your core demographic was like truckers with a kindergarten-level education. He never really comes up with much of a plan on how to “expose” the new Janice, who continues to implore him for some good lovin’. Instead Steve just runs around his little town, trying to get people to listen to him, particularly Dr. Earl, who is obstinate that this is Janice (even though Earl never met her), and that it’s all in Steve’s head.

Even more resistance comes from Steve’s “friend,” a cop named Rhodes. He at first listens to Steve’s wild story, asking common-sense questions about how Steve can be sure it isn’t the same woman (one thing noted is that the only thing similar about pseudo-Janice is that she has the same-colored hair as the original version). Yet Rhodes soon becomes an enemy, openly questioning Steve’s innocence in all this, particulary when the raped and murdered corpse of an auburn-haired young woman washes up on shore. Before this happens, though, Steve finally gives in to pseudo-Janice’s horny demands and has sex with her on the living room couch.

Brewer writes a sequence a bit more explicit than you’d read in other mainstream novels of the time, but nothing too outrageous, and still vague and metaphorical for the most part. One thing he does get across is that pseudo-Janice sure enjoys it a whole bunch. (And I guess sickly Aunt Eda, upstairs in his room, sleeps through all of the girl’s wailing.) But immediately after this Rhodes calls Steve and hauls him down to the precinct to identify that aforementioned corpse. This is a sad scene that, again, would have had even more impact if we’d met the real Janice beforehand. But as it it, the cat is now out of the bag, as Steve swears to Rhodes that this is the woman he married, not the imposter back in his home.

The novel slowly morphs from a psychological suspense tale to more of a thriller as Steve realizes something’s really going on. Now he’s certain it’s not just in his head and that isn’t the real Janice in his home, but the girl refuses to tell Steve anything, smiling tauntingly at him as he threatens her. Why Steve never goes at her with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch is a mystery to me. He does get to vent a little steam when he finds a dude lurking outside his house one night; after a quick scuffle, Steve’s knocked flat and realizes that the attacker was the dude with bushy eyebrows who bought drinks for Steve and the real Janice the night all this craziness began – the last night he saw the real Janice.

Brewer takes us into the homestretch as the narrative acquires a breathless pace. Steve shuffles back and forth from Oceanside, where he met the real Janice, to his home town, tracking down clues and questioning witnesses. Meanwhile Aunt Eda’s getting sicker and sicker, even though Dr. Earl’s constantly treating her. And meanwhile pseudo-Janice just sits up in her room and waits for him. One of the biggest failings of Play It Hard is that pseudo-Janice, who is really such a great femme fatale, is kept off-page for so long. Steve spends more time with Claire, his childhood sweetheart, a gal he’s been in love with and vice versa for years, but the relationship never worked out, or something. (Brewer throws in another somewhat-explicit sex scene via flashback.)

Claire turns out to be the only person who believes Steve, not that this is much help for him, as she too soon disappears from the narrative, abducted by whoever is behind all this. Another problem with the novel is that no matter what Brewer comes up with, it will ultimately be unsatisfying; the concept is too weird and almost sci-fi for the mystery and suspense genre. And as it goes it does turn out to be a mundane impetus behind the whole “fake Janice” ruse; turns out Steve’s home, which he’s lived in with Aunt Eda since he was a child, once belonged to an associate of Al Capone, and the thug supposedly stashed his loot somewhere in the house.

A certain character in the novel has lusted after this money for years and years, and now thanks to a stroke of luck has discovered that it might be in Steve’s home. The villain then pushed Steve to take a much-needed vacation and meet a girl; the girl, Janice, was in reality a hooker who was paid to marry Steve. The villain’s desired goal was that, being married, Steve would decide to move out of the house with Aunt Eda and thus the villain would be free to go in and out to search for the loot – especially if Aunt Eda was bedridden. But when Janice decided to push for more money, the villain had her killed off and then came up with the bizarro idea to replace her with a fake and make Steve think it was all in his head. Obviously such a plan was guaranteed to fail.

The novel culminates in a bit of an action scene, but Steve never does become an ass-kicker of a protagonist. Instead he just sort of stands by, waiting for his moment to strike, while the villain exposits on his scheme. Sick of the pseudo-Janice’s complaints and criticisms, the villain blows her face off, with Brewer describing her corpse with the memorable phrase “lying in a leggy huddle.” Humorously, pseudo-Janice’s body is talked up at all times, like in an earlier moment, perhaps intentionally funny, where Brewer describes her breasts for a sentence or two, and then writes something to the effect of, “though Steve was no longer interested in them.”

As for the stashed loot, it’s long gone, something Eda reveals in the final paragraphs. So in other words it was all for naught. However Steve has realized at long last that Claire is his true one-and-only, and that he was a fool to ever think otherwise. Thus Brewer delivers a veritable happy ever after, even if we’ve learned that the woman he’s been hunting for throughout the novel was tortured and repeatedly raped before being killed. But since she was just a whore, one who was hired to get Steve to fall in love with her and marry her, it doesn’t matter. She deserved her horrible fate! 

Brewer’s writing is great, with that noir style down pat. Short, punchy sentences, memorable dialog. Steve meets an assortment of fringe characters during his travels and they all have their unique charms. Also Brewer doesn’t shy from the spicy stuff, with pseudo-Janice’s breasts and body described frequently and at length. And as I say, you get the idea that Brewer knew his concept was goofy and just charged right on through it, which only adds to the enjoyability factor. Anyway, I was so entertained by Play It Hard that I’ll definitely be reading more of Brewer’s work.


Kurt said...

Welcome to the fever-noir of one of my favorite writers. I'm glad Gil Brewers books are getting more attention now. Stark House Press has reprinted several of his books in recent years. But it's fun to find the old paperbacks out there. They're a blast.

Matthew said...

Seems to me Steve was looking a gift horse in the mouth

Ron Clinton said...

Brewer is quite possibly my favorite classic noir writer. As such, I've read 'em all (save for the new, previously-unpublished three-novel tpb that Stark House is publishing this month), and would recommend THE RED SCARF as your next Brewer novel. It's fantastic, and really shows Brewer at his best.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Kurt, I also enjoyed your review of the novel. And Ron, thanks for the suggestion -- I have "The Red Scarf" thanks to the hardcover anthology "Dark Crimes," edited by Ed Gorman, which includes the novel in its entirety. Now I need to read it!